Many people don’t think of business as an expression of human values and meanings. Business is mostly thought of as a way to earn a living or create assets against future calamity. But business is also a social contract. It is a way of providing products and services, things we value, in exchange for other things we value, such as other products or currency. Trade and industry bring people together for common ends. Human beings that might otherwise never speak with each other are brought together in a combined expression of imagination and creation, in order to reap the rewards of their labor.
From this perspective, business is actually the foundation of human society. It brought diverse people together for a common goal. And as trade and commerce grew so did society.
Society and trade are locked in an evolutionary process. From the time when seashells and salt (obtainable with no technology) were common currency, to precious metals and gems (requiring fire and mining to extract), to today’s paper money (which requires special printing methods and especially social consensus) society and commerce have changed together. And technology has benefited from this contract as well.
Slowly and surely plodding into the future, a stable society, means-of-exchange, and communication have evolved. This does not suggest there were no bumps and failures along the way. Part of the social evolutionary process requires experimentation and frequent failures. But each success and failure leads us inexorably into the future.
In the past this process occurred un-noticed, as an unconscious pattern or habit of human existence. But, as we have grown in our knowledge and awareness of social issues and who we are as individuals and as a collective, we are also beginning to understand that we have an effect on the future, by making moral and ethical decisions today. If we forego some of the short-term benefits of wealth and trade today, we can create greater values for our “Children’s children’s children” in the future for the long-term.
For some, this is a difficult – if not impossible – decision to make. Should I consider the (environmental, social, educational, etc.) damage caused by my wealth-creating pursuits; or, should I just plod ahead “devil-may-care”, and “make hay while the sun shines” regardless of the problems caused? Maybe we should let the future generations clean up the mess? Who knows, maybe they can make a cottage industry out of a broken society – or maybe not.
Business leaders have a responsibility to consider all the costs of doing business in today’s society and also consider the costs to future generations. Those that are deep thinking are already taking these steps, others are just waking up to these facts. We need to support them and let them know we are aware of the good they are doing by purchasing their products and services.
From the consumer’s viewpoint, it is our responsibility to learn the values and goals of those companies we buy from, and vote for them – or not – with our dollars and social support mechanisms.
So, as you can see, business is truly a social contract. It has been written by our many ancestors over thousands of years. Refined and penned by those who are driven to create and those who take pleasure in their fruits. But it is a living contract, one that is prone to change at a moment’s notice, to improve or falter. It contains fine print that is sometimes difficult to read or ignored entirely (at one’s peril). And finally there are those unspoken concepts that are bubbling up from the collective consciousness that we will put in future versions of this contract, to benefit those yet to come.